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Response to Review of Histoire de la France contemporaine

Author’s response from Johann CHAPOUTOT, Quentin DELUERMOZ, Bertrand GOUJON and Aurélien LIGNEREUX.

We first would like to thank Professor Pilbeam for reading and reviewing the first two volumes of this new History of Modern France – out of the three that came out in October 2012.

Professor Pilbeam acknowledges this new series for renewing the vision of French modern history, 40 years after Le Seuil asked renowned historians to write an introduction to the history of France. She highlights the main qualities of the volumes, but raises a number of points to which we would like to respond.

Our reviewer was ‘startled’ by the fact that we decided to start this new series in 1799, rather than 1789. This does not mean that we ‘expunge[d] the Great Revolution from contemporary history’. Although this decade has been increasingly explored over the past few years by specialists of modern history – often more convincingly than by specialists of later periods – the French Revolution does remain of ‘seminal importance’ to us: the first three volumes of our Histoire de la France contemporaine deal with it on many occasions and it is one of the main threads which contribute to the unity and coherence of the series. Aurélien Lignereux’s volume examines how the revolution was institutionalized in France and disseminated by the sword of the French armies and the Code Napoléon; Bertrand Goujon shows how three kings tried to reinvent monarchy in France despite and after the Revolution; and in the third volume which was published last October, Quentin Deluermoz, questions the possible ‘end of revolutions’ in the period between 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871. In a volume to be published in 2014, Arnaud Houte will assess whether the ‘republican model’ that prevailed between 1871 and 1879 marked the end and the victory of the 1789 Revolution. Far from ‘throwing the revolutionary baby out with the Marxist bathwater,’ we thus address it consistently in all the volumes focusing on the 19th century, until 1914 at least.

The title of the first volume – L’Empire des Français – was chosen in order to make the French and their empire central to our argument. About 50 years ago, Pierre Goubert urged his colleagues to write the history of ‘20 million Frenchmen’ and not to focus exclusively on Louis XIV. This is precisely what Aurélien Lignereux achieved here – but he does by no means forget Napoléon, who is mentioned some 700 times in the text. It is true, though, that Lignereux did not intend to write a biography of Napoléon – dozens have already been published. To study the ‘French and their Empire’, Lignereux resorted to the concepts and methods of the new imperial history – which was so fruitful when applied to the British Empire. The first French Empire might have been a continental one, but the methods and views of our British colleagues were of great help: a down-to-top method in which local cases are studied – without overlooking the local populations annexed to the Empire – in a wide range of monographs on the imperial administrations of an Empire which comprised 130 départements. Aurélien Lignereux shows that the French were reluctant ‘Bonapartists’, and that their resentment against their emperor manifested itself before 1812. The linguistic turn, initiated by many American and British historians, sheds new light on the so-called ‘Bonapartism’ of the French, which emerged mainly after 1815, and historians cannot but acknowledge this fact. Nevertheless, the French were quite enthusiastic ‘imperialists’, as indicated by many studies based on the biographies and prosopography of expatriate civil servants, merchants and soldiers. In other words, this volume explores the political history of a nation by using social and cultural history.

Bertrand Goujon’s volume is entitled Monarchies postrévolutionnaires. Goujon coined this concept, which had never been used before in historiography in order to account for the restored monarchies of 1815–30 and 1830–48. Before this book, they were rather seen as ‘inter-revolutionary monarchies’. On the contrary, this volume shows that the actors in these restorations were trying to find an adequate synthesis between revolution and tradition in the form of a constitutional monarchy – partly inspired by the British example – which was contested not only by the right, with Charles X – who was overthrown in July 1830 – but also by the left, with the revolutionary moments of 1832 and 1848.

This book is thus by no means ‘too fatalistic’: on the contrary, it keeps the realm of the possible open and considers the past through the vantage point of Charles X and Louis-Philippe’s coevals. This choice was also a way to avoid a teleological approach to 19th-century French history: the two restorations did not directly lead to a revolution – just as it was not inevitable that the period between 1848 and 1871 would end with the victory of the Republic over a ‘second empire’ which might well have maintained itself for several decades, had Prussia and Bismarck not decided to build German unity on another war.

Revolutions were not written in the skies of French history. They were sometimes constructed – and here again, the linguistic turn is particularly relevant to our approach. 1830 ought to be read in the light of a broader sequence of uncertainty – let’s say 1828–32 – and this is exactly what Bertrand Goujon does here, by questioning the traditional landmarks of French chronology. As for 1848, it is shortly analysed at the end of Goujon’s book because it is studied at length by Quentin Deluermoz in Le crépuscule des revolutions – volume three of the series. As a matter of fact, Goujon’s conclusion focuses on the Orleanist point of view on the 1848 revolution, while Deluermoz analyses that of the ‘républicains’. Lignereux and Goujon did the same thing for the years 1814 and 1815: while Lignereux explored the period from the eyes of Napoleon’s partisans, that is to say, from the eyes of the people who wanted him to come back to power, Goujon studies the same period from the point of view of those who supported the Bourbon Monarchy: this overlapping helps to better understand an event or a sequence by confronting the contrasted visions of its actors.

To conclude, we would like to account for some of the formal elements of the series. Our reviewer was rightfully critical of the front covers and the illustrations that were chosen by the publishing house. They are too conventional and not quite relevant – but they are part of a marketing strategy that the authors are seldom allowed to discuss. If, by any chance, the image matches the content of the book – as is the case for L’Empire des Français – all the better. Sometimes it does not, and Bertrand Goujon had to make do with a portrait of Louis-Philippe that did not quite reflect the content of his text.

Footnotes were not allowed by the publisher except when the authors referred to first-hand documents which are not mentioned anywhere else, yet the works of our colleagues are generally referred to in our texts (‘As Y shows’, etc …) and their books are listed in the bibliography of each volume. The conclusion was left to the discretion of each author. Some historians do not wish to conclude and they are perfectly entitled not to. We look forward to the opportunity the pocket edition of our books will provide to correct these, and are confident that the texts will be formally satisfying when the time of translation comes.

Professor Pilbeam is right when she writes that our series is aimed at ‘under- and postgraduate students’ as well as at anybody who is interested in French history. This was the main difficulty of these first three volumes – and will remain the main challenge of the seven more to come: we try to introduce our readers to the work of professional historians within a narrative that should be pleasant to read and that should cover in the same volume a wide range of historical fields – political, social, military, cultural, economic, international and gender history. As challenging as it may be, we have tried to do so by offering a series that is coherent despite its many contributors: doing our best to respect the perspective of the contemporary actors and to consider the fact that, in their eyes, the future remained undetermined; we have tried to follow the development and evolution of a nation-state that was seen as a model in the 19th century before being deeply questioned in the 20th, without forgetting that the national scale proves insufficient and limited if it is not placed in a wider inter- and transnational context.

How can we make the works of our colleagues accessible to a broader audience? How can we be exhaustive in 400 pages without exhausting the reader? How can we be scientifically accurate and still offer our readers a pleasant and coherent narrative? Everybody knows that squaring the circle is always difficult, if not impossible, yet this is what we have attempted to do.